by Elena Shvidko

5 Strategies to Become a Better English as a Second Language Reader

Young couple with map in mountains

I know two categories of people: those who think reading is fascinating and exciting, and those who think reading is the most boring activity in the world.  Regardless of the category you belong to, you need to develop strong reading skills if you want to pass an English test and if you want to study in an English-speaking university.

Reading academic texts is not the same as reading novels or popular magazines.  In order to effectively read academic texts, you need to become a strategic reader.  This is not as difficult as it sounds though, and I would like to share some of the reading strategies that helped me become a strategic reader.  Hope they will be useful to you as well.

Strategy 1: Previewing/Predicting

I learned about this helpful strategy in my academic reading class several years ago.  It was interesting to me because I had never thought about helping myself understand a text even before reading it.

Previewing means becoming familiar with the text before reading it.  I recommend this strategy to you because it will allow you to get a general vision of the text, including the main points and the organization.  When you preview the text you are about to read, you understand it better while reading it.  To preview the text, use the following techniques:

  • Read the title and try to predict the main idea of the text based on the title.
  • Skim through the text and read the headings and sub-headings (if applicable).
  • If the text includes pictures, take a closer look at them and try to guess how they relate to the content of the text.  You can do the same with other types of visuals (tables, charts, graphs).

Another simple yet helpful activity that I learned in my reading class is completing the “KWL” chart.  K stands for “Knowing,” or things that you already know about the topic of the reading, W stands for “What” or what you want to know about this topic or from this text, and L stands for “Learning” or things that you learned from the text.  You can use the following chart to work with the target text:

K

W

L

 ..

For example, when you saw the title of this blog post, was there anything that you think you already knew about this topic?  In other words, are you familiar with some reading strategies?  Is there anything else that you already knew about the topic?  All of this could go to the first column (“K”).  Now, why are you reading this post?  What do you want to learn from it?  The answers to these questions would be put in the second column (“W”).  You can write them in a question-form, or as statements.  The third column would be filled after reading this post (“L”).  What did you learn from the text? Did you find answers to your questions from the second column?

Try to apply the “KWL” chart to read our other blog posts!

Strategy 2: Identifying the Topic

To be able to comprehend the text and better understand the author’s main idea, you should first identify the topic of the text.  Topic is a word or a phrase that describes a general subject of a reading passage.  The best way to identify a topic is to ask yourself: What or who is this text about?

For example, read the following paragraph from one of my past blog posts and ask the question: Who or what is this paragraph about?

The secret of success in keeping a personal journal is consistency.  I am truly convinced that it’s much more helpful to write just a little bit a few times a week rather than produce a long, albeit interesting, entry once a month.  Don’t worry if you don’t seem to have anything “worthy” to write about.  Remember that your goal is not creating a storybook for publishing!  Your ideas may not be interesting for other people, but they can surely be meaningful to you.  And of course there are a whole variety of things that you can write about. 

Now, what do you think is the topic of this paragraph?

  1. A variety of things to write about
  2. Writing a little bit a few times a week
  3. Consistency in writing a personal journal

The correct answer is 3.  While 1 and 2 are mentioned in the paragraph, they are just examples that illustrate the more general idea: the secret of writing a journal is consistency.

English is a topic-centered language.  When you read texts in English, you will notice that most paragraphs have a single main topic and the rest of the sentences in a paragraph support the topic.  Oftentimes, writers place the topic either in the first sentence of a paragraph or near the beginning of the paragraph (just like in my paragraph above).  Knowing this can help you find topics more easily and will help you become a more strategic reader.

Red apple standing out in a row of green apples

Strategy 3: Skimming/Scanning

Skimming and scanning are two most commonly applied skills in reading.  In fact, you probably skim and scan while reading any type of information without even realizing it.

Skimming: Skimming is a form of fast reading for finding the main ideas, or the gist of the text.  When you skim, you don’t read every single word, but instead, you move your eyes quickly across the text in order to get a general idea of what the text is about.  Things that people skim through on a daily basis are movie reviews, newspaper articles, website pages, and even grocery shelves at a supermarket.

However, there are certain types of reading that you must not skim, instead, you should read them carefully.  Some examples are: contracts, important emails, test instructions, medicine descriptions.

Scanning: Scanning is looking for specific information.  When you scan, you move your eyes quickly across the text trying to find a specific detail or word.  For example, if you are looking for the answer to the question “How old was Pete when he found his first job?” you will probably scan for a number (Peter’s age).

Both of these strategies come in handy in college when you have a large amount of texts but little time to read them.

Strategy 4: Understanding Patterns of Organization

Understanding patterns of organization is another important reading skill.  When you understand the pattern of organization, you will be able to follow the ideas more quickly and efficiently.

There are five common patterns of organization that are most commonly used in English paragraphs:

Pattern of organization

Definition 

Signal words and phrases

Listing

The main idea is stated in the form of a generalization; the examples are given to support the main idea.

For example, for instance, first, second, in addition, besides, finally, most important, also, another

Sequence

The main idea is presented in a series of events or steps in a process.

First, second, next, then, since, soon, at last, in 1980, last month, the next step, the following year, while, at last

Compare/Contrast

The main idea is presented in the comparison of two subjects (concepts, people, ideas, etc.).  The comparison may only address either similarities or differences or both of them.

Similarly, in the same way, like, as, both, in contrast, however, but, on the other hand, although, yet, unlike

Cause/Effect

Events or ideas are presented as a result of other events or ideas.

Due to, because, as a result, as a consequence, is caused by, leads to, gives rise to, comes from, produces

Problem/Solution

The main idea is presented in a form of a problem with an indicated solution or a few solutions.

Resolved, solution, solve, situation, trouble, issue, dilemma

Strategy 5: Finding Details

Deposit your budget for investment in the future

Paragraphs often contain supporting details that provide more information about the main idea of the paragraph and the text in general.  The supporting details elaborate on the main idea by providing answers to the questions Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?

There are several types of supporting details.  Below I address the most common types.

Statistics

Statistics are facts expressed in numbers, based on data from samples and populations.

Example: The author claims that American universities become more and more multicultural.

Statistic: Each year, the number of international students in the U.S. increases by 7% over the previous year.

Opinions

Opinions are people’s views or values of something. Let me give you an example from one of my previous blog posts about English mistakes I made as an ESL learner

Example: The author claims that learning words from the list is not helpful.

Opinion: When you learn words from lists, there is no attachment to meaningful contexts that provide you with a better understanding of different word usages.  As a result, these words disappear from your memory as easily as they got there.

Personal Observations and Experiences

Example: The author claims that English learners should know how to express themselves using the knowledge they already have (opposed to looking up every single word in a dictionary)

Personal experience: When I started to learn English, my biggest problem was that I didn’t know how to express myself exactly the way I did in my native language.  It happened because I was not able to think in English, and also because I did not know how to use other linguistic resources that I already possessed to avoid situations where translation was impossible.

Examples

Examples are ways of illustrating your point so that it is better understood. Here is another example from my blog post with the same claim as in the previous example.

Example: The author claims that English learners should know how to express themselves using the knowledge they already have (opposed to looking up every single word in a dictionary)

Example: Let’s say, you don’t know the word “garage” but you still need to use it in a given context.  Instead of looking up this word in a bilingual dictionary, you can simply describe this word as “a building for housing a car”.  This is called paraphrasing, and it’s one of the many other techniques that you can develop to compensate for the lack of linguistic knowledge.

So these are my reading strategies!  I hope you will try them to improve your reading skills and increase your reading comprehension.

Do you have any reading strategies that help you to improve your reading skills in English?

About the author:

Elena is originally from Russia and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Second Language Studies in the U.S. She has taught various ESL classes in academic and community contexts. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, especially hiking and fishing.